The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lecture 3 : The Reality of the Unseen | Summary

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Summary

James devotes Lecture 3 to the "psychological peculiarities" seen in persons with a belief in an "unseen order." He notes that the philosopher Immanuel Kant said that objects of belief—such as God, the soul, and the like—are not objects of knowledge, since they lack sense-content. James asserts, however, that the "sentiment of reality" can strongly attach itself to objects of belief to the point where a person's life "is polarized through and through ... by its sense of the existence of the thing believed in." The concrete universe, in fact, "swims" in the universe of abstract ideas—such as time, space, goodness, beauty, strength, justice, and so forth. These abstractions are like beings, since people turn toward and away from them, hate them, love them, and bless them. In their own realm they are as real as the "changing things of sense in the realm of space," James says.

He cites Greek philosopher Plato's notion of the world of forms as a defense of "this common human feeling," in which the intellect is aware of something beyond the sensible world. He notes that the ethical societies of his time, which have put aside the idea of God, still worship an "abstract divine," which they call moral law. Science also has taken the place of religion for some, who revere the laws of nature. "It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call 'something there,' more deep and more general than any of the special and particular 'senses' by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed," James says.

The author then provides some accounts from people who have sensed an abstract or spiritual presence—not always felt as pleasant nor divine. James also mentions that this sense of presence is sometimes accompanied by visual hallucinations. The author concludes by saying that in the realm of religious experience some people "possess the objects of their belief, not in the form of mere conceptions which their intellect accepts as true, but rather in the form of quasi-sensible realities directly apprehended."

James then provides additional accounts of direct perceptions of God's existence, applying the adjective "mystical" to them. While mystical experiences are usually brief, sometimes a person can experience hours of rapture. Thus, "unpicturable beings are realized, and realized with an intensity almost like that of an hallucination," James says. These experiences shape a person's attitude, and he compares this "haunting" by God to what a lover feels when out of the presence of his beloved. Although the beloved is not physically with the lover, the lover feels her presence. Such religious experiences are "genuine perceptions of truth" for those who have them, and no amount of logic can contradict them. In the next two lectures, James will turn his attention to religious optimism.

Analysis

James takes on the Kantian notion that objects of belief cannot be objects of knowledge because they are not contacted by people's senses. In Kant's view, if a person imagines a unicorn, it is not an object of knowledge since the person never touched, saw, or heard the unicorn with their senses. James asserts, however, that objects of belief can be imbued with a strong sense of reality when those objects become a pole around which the person's life revolves or become the basis for their actions. In fact, people are constantly acting upon their beliefs—about space, time, goodness, and so forth. Yet no one ever saw these ideas with their human eyes. No one can see time, for example, yet people set an alarm clock and rise at a specific hour to get to work or school. Human beings are swimming in ideas that create a context through which they live, and in that sense they are real and are objects of knowledge. Moreover, people love and hate certain abstractions, so for all intents and purposes human beings are in the habit of treating abstractions as if they are persons, in the same way people treat an idea about God as a person.

James also argues that people have a natural intuition that there is something beyond the sensible world, and his proof of this is that people historically have created ideas about this beyond. He offers as an example Plato's notion that a world of perfect forms exists that is the basis for all the forms that exist in the material world. Even people who have given up the notion of a personal God continue to worship a divine principle, whether that is moral law or science, James says, and he takes this seemingly pervasive idea (that there is something beyond the senses) as proof of these realities—at least for practical purposes. No doubt a cognitive neuroscientist or Freudian analyst would give a very different explanation for this pervasive idea. But for James the somewhat universal apprehension of the existence of something beyond the sensible world, along with the fact that people act on their ideas about the "unseen order," are enough in his mind to disprove Kant's theory. The fact that people experience rapture after contact with "quasi-sensible" reality is proof that they have acquired some form of knowledge, since such experiences shape their attitudes as well as their actions following such visitations. Thus, James puts these religious experiences into the category of "genuine perceptions of truth," vis-à-vis the person who undergoes such experiences.

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